Paris has Vélib, Copenhagen has the Bycyklen system, and Spaniards get around with Barcelona’s Bicing. Bike share programs are a common feature of many large European cities, helping to ease congestion, decrease local and global pollution, and save its users time and money. And although many cities in the United States, like Portland and San Francisco, have been bike-friendly for years, we’ve been slow to implement these large scale bike share programs. Yet as congestion mounts and sustainable living becomes more a mandate than a choice, it might be time for the U.S. to catch up.
Across the Pond and on a Bike
Bike share programs range from small, community-based programs that offer bikes for free use to larger, technology-based services that involve public and private partnerships. Whichever mode, they share common goals: less congestion in large cities, more sustainable means of transportation, improved safety and conviviality of communities, better health for riders, and fewer emissions.
While many Europeans have relied on biking as a form of transportation for decades, bike share programs were introduced in large cities to encourage non-bike riders to join along and make it convenient for people to get around town without having to worry about locking up their bike or maintaining it.
The initial programs that offered free bikes or coin deposits were thwarted by theft and vandalism, but newer technology has helped decrease crime. Most large programs have electronic cards, computer or telecommunication tracking, and an enrollment system that stores credit card information. Bikes are usually distinctly designed or colored so they are immediately recognizable and some have parts that won’t work on other bikes. With annual memberships at usually around forty dollars, they are significantly cheaper than driving and public transportation, although some programs do charge more for longer distances or check-outs.
Despite some speed bumps, most programs have proved successful. Paris’s Vélib has 20,000 bikes in operation and the Vélo’v program in Lyon has seen ridership skyrocket, perhaps because so few people biked in the city prior to the program. London, Stockholm, Helsinki, Rome, Pamplona, Düsseldorf—many major cities have programs or are on track to implement them. Taipei and Beijing, who have both seen an immense rise in car traffic, have also started implementing programs and improving bike lanes.
Starting to Ride
In the United States, community bike programs have been around for years; Portland’s Yellow Bike Project started in 1994. However, many of the community bike programs, which often rely on free bikes and a trust system, have succumbed to crime. For instance, Charlottesville, VA had a Yellow Bike Program, which put about 150 yellow bikes throughout the city for anyone to use, but the program had to be stalled because of theft and vandalism.
However, as cities look to Europe to implement large-scale programs, they also look to the European model, which is usually a public-private partnership and uses technology-based theft prevention. Clear Channel, for instance, runs programs in over ten European cities in exchange for advertising on their bikes. Clear Channel is also a funder of some of the programs in the United States, like SmartBike DC, which started in 2008, and has over one hundred bikes spread around Washington DC. Although we haven’t achieved the size of most bike share programs in Europe, there are burgeoning programs in some cities. New York City has a pilot bike share program in the summer; Portland, Minneapolis, Arlington, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago are all intending to start small bike share programs.
College campuses have also been keen on community bikes. At the University of New England, for instance, students are given a $480 bicycle, for free, in exchange for leaving their car at home with their parents. At Emory University in Atlanta, students and faculty can check out bikes as part of the BikeEmory program. However, many campuses have had to stop programs due to unreturned bikes and vandalism. And some campuses, like UC Davis, which boasts 40,000 bikes already, may not necessarily need a bike share program.
United States of the Automobile
Starting bike share programs isn’t easy. Even the large programs in Europe still face theft and vandalism problems, and in colder climates, ridership drops during the winter and maintenance fees can add up. One drawback in the U.S. is that many communities aren’t set up for biking; they’re set up for driving. Long commutes and a lack of bike lanes can’t necessarily be solved with easy-to-access bikes. Yet for those cities that are relatively flat and dense, bike share programs—and increased bike ridership in general—offer so many benefits you have to wonder if two wheels might be the ride of the future.